Malaysian pro-democracy leader launches bid for parliament

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The leader of Malaysia’s biggest pro-democracy group said on Tuesday she will stand for parliament in a general election under the banner of an opposition alliance aiming to throw Prime Minister Najib Razak out of office.

Maria Chin Abdullah is chairwoman of the activist group Bersih, which means “clean” in the Malay language, and which has for years led anti-government protests against Najib who has been dogged by a scandal over huge losses at a state fund.

Her support for the opposition in a general election that must be held by August is likely to bolster the Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance, led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, especially among urban voters frustrated with Najib’s rule.

“The system has not worked for us. We have to try new strategies and entering parliament is just one of them,” Maria, 62, she told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Najib faces an unprecedented challenge from his former mentor, Mahathir, 92, who turned on the prime minister over his handling of a multi-billion dollar scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund.

After news broke in 2015 of hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly misappropriated from the fund, Najib moved quickly to quell dissent, sacking critics from his cabinet and ruling party and clamping down on a damaging internal probe.

Najib and the fund deny any wrongdoing.

Despite the scandal, Najib’s Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, is widely expected to win the election, thanks to rural support, a rebounding economy, and the redrawing of electoral boundaries that critics say favor the government.

Maria did not mention the 1MDB scandal in her news conference.

She promised to fight for election reform, gender equality and the environment, if elected to the 222-seat parliament.

“My sole purpose is to get my agenda to parliament,” she said.

She said she was stepping down as leader of the activist group, which brands itself as non-partisan, to focus on her bid for parliament.

Critics said her decision to enter politics exposed her political bias in favor of the opposition. But Maria said Bersih has never been neutral.

“We have always taken sides against violators of democracy,” she said.

Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Praveen Menon and Robert Birsel